Friday, October 30, 2009

Fécamp !

I went to Fécamp last year, at the very end of the year, but never blogged about it because I am lazy. So this year the procrastination bull is being taken by the horns, and this post is the first in what will hopefully be a long line of travel posts that get written very soon after I return from said travels.

Well, we can hope, can't we?

Fécamp is a relatively small town (about 20,000 inhabitants) on the Normandy coast, a little northeast of Etretat. Not only does it have pretty cliffs and pebbly beaches and Norman charm, it also has a palace! But not a royal palace; no no, this palace was built for advertising, pure and simple. You see, in 1510, a Venetian monk named Dom Bernardo Vincelli brought exotic herbs and spices with him to the Fécamp abbey. Dom Bernardo became the abbey's pharmacist and created a "health elixir" from these plants and spices. This elixir was used in the abbey until the French Revolution (no mention of how alcoholic the stuff was at the time, but if it's anything like it is now, it certainly had some medicinal purposes...). Then the recipe was lost until a businessman, Alexandre Le Grand, saw that he could make a killing from "rediscovering" this lost recipe, steeped in ancient lore. So in the late 1800s, Le Grand created Bénédictine, an amber-colored liqueur made from 27 plants and spices (not distilled essence of Benedictine monk, as I thought at first. So no Brother Cadfaels were harmed in the making of this drink). Being a savvy businessman, he trademarked it (waaaaay ahead of his time), started to export it (the Palais de la Bénédictine is still the only place on earth that it's made), paid talented graphic designers to make posters and stained-glass windows advertising it, and built this ridiculous Gothic-Renaissance palace to promote his brand:

So yeah, the guy took his brand seriously. It paid off, though - 150 years later, Bénédictine is still widely sold, exported all over the world, and blogged about by silly expat Americans. There are worse fates. Also, it's delicious (full disclosure: I am drinking some as I blog. For inspiration, of course. The inspiration that only 80-proof liquor can provide).

Before I get into the palace and its museum, however, I will share the rest of our excursion. Ben, Lauryn and I took a train and a bus from Rouen to Fécamp. We disembarked, then realized that we had no idea where to go, not having any maps. But wait Lisa, didn't you say you'd been there before? Why yes, dear reader, I have. I didn't know where to go last time, either. Brave Ben found a map, which directed us to the tourist office, which directed us in turn to some viewpoints. So we set off on the route highlighted for us, which took us to this path:

Certain of finding homeless people around every corner, we bravely entered the mysterious doorway and confronted the narrow, winding path. Also, there were stairs. Lots and lots of stairs. Halfway up, I paused to document how far we'd come:

Then we encountered a helpful tourist information board, which told us that this path, up which we had been huffing and puffing, was the very same path up which pilgrims and sailors would climb, sometimes on their knees or in bare feet, to reach the chapel at the top. Didn't stop us from whining, though.

Finally, we reached the chapel, which was quite lovely.

The real draw, however, was the view; cliffs, village, ocean, beach.

We walked along the cliffs for quite some time, taking oodles of pictures of all sorts of lovely views (more pics here)

until we got hungry and had to head back down. Ben had invited an Estonian friend, Nikita, who in turn brought his Canadian friend Kaylee (no, she hasn't heard of Firefly). They got to Fécamp just as we returned to town, so we met them and set out to find lunch. We were planning on going to a bakery, a cheese shop, and a butcher shop to make our own sandwiches, but because this is France everything closes at lunchtime, just when you'd want food. So some of us went to the one open bakery and got pre-made sandwiches, and some of us found the one kebab place and got greasy, lamb-y, delicious kebabs. Oh how I have missed them. We hiked to the beach to eat,

and then the bravest member of the group went wading!

Also, because of the stones, the waves make a really neat tinkly sound as they recede, from all the pebbles moving around. I tested the video function of my camera to try to capture it:

Yes, the cameraman is a scaredy-cat. Now shush.

Next, we hiked to the Palais de la Bénédictine, which is Fécamp's real claim to fame. It has a museum of sacred art, as well as a "how Bénédictine is made" section. One of the museum's highlights was the stained-glass window made to advertise Bénédictine:

Yes, that is an angel bringing Alexandre Le Grand a bottle of Bénédictine. Because he must have had divine inspiration to create something so delicious! Or something...

I also liked the small room of engraved manuscripts, which were so gorgeous and detailed that it's hard to believe they were created by people. By candle-light, no less.

The second part of the museum, having to do with the fabrication of Bénédictine, was a little more interesting. First, we walked through a room full of herbs and spices, showing where they come from and what they're used for. There were bowls and jars full of them, as well as these works of art:

The ceiling of this room had 5 stained-glass advertisements for Bénédictine. I wish advertising were still this luxurious and well-designed...

Then, it was down to the basement, where the magic actually happens. There's an incredibly complicated process, involving four different mixtures of herbs, which are distilled and aged separately before being mixed together, aged again, having honey and other things added, then finally aged some more. All I really took away from it, though, were the dozens of huge oak barrels:

There's a little sign at the top saying "14,000 litres". And there were a bunch of these! All this big!

Then it was down into a deeper basement with smaller barrels, connected by some gorgeous red piping, labeled with enameled plaques. The French just do it better:

By this time, some of us were really ready for the free tasting that awaited us at the end of the visit:

Here we are!

And the gorgeous amber liquid itself:

Then, of course, there was the boutique, where I restrained myself (I still have most of the bottle I bought last year) and only bought one postcard and a bag of Bénédictine bonbons. We tore into the candy on the way home, ensuring constant entertainment from the quiet shrieks as the candy part melted, giving way to the much stronger Bénédictine flavor.

Thus ends the lovely trip to Fécamp. I love that I can just decide that I want to go to the coast, hop on a train, and get there in about an hour for under ten euros. France, je t'aime.

1 comment:

  1. "So no Brother Cadfaels were harmed in the making of this drink."


    Also, the picture of the serpent thing made of spices reminds me of doing the sand art when I was a kid and I would peal away the paper to reveal the sticky part, and then drizzle colored sand over it, and then shake the loose sand away. Except this is much more French...